The Smithsonian has conserved the original edition of Jefferson’s Bible. You’ll recall that said book is a cut-and-paste job produced by our third president in which—this is from our entry-in-progress on Jefferson and religion—he “painstakingly excerpted the Gospels from two copies in each of four different languages (English, French, Greek, and Latin) to produce what he considered a more accurate, demystified history of Jesus and his teaching, excluding miracles and ending with Jesus being placed in the tomb.”
Such a project is not for everyone. “A Bible without miracles and Christ’s Resurrection is boring and pointless,” writes one true believer. Others find themselves positively aflutter. Carolyn Gleason is the director of Smithsonian Books, which has just published a facsimile edition of the book. A graduate of the University of Virginia, she tells the alumni magazine that handling that original edition was a powerful experience. “The first time I saw it I was a little star-struck. I kept thinking, ‘This actually is Jefferson’s book.'”
Meanwhile, best-selling author David Barton explains that a lot of what we think we know about Jefferson is a load of doo-doo. This includes Jefferson’s Bible. In The Jefferson Lies (2012), Barton writes:
Logic would tell us that if Jefferson wrote his own Bible, he would do so only if he were thoroughly dissatisfied with the traditional Bible, especially its inclusion of the supernatural. Evidence definitively shows that this was not Jefferson’s view. As noted in previous chapters of this book, Jefferson made frequent, positive use of Bible references and passages in his own writings.
Of course, logic could just as easily tell us that Jefferson liked some of the Bible and disliked other parts, and therefore there’s noting particularly amiss with his positive use of those references he liked. Here’s Barton on The Daily Show:
Some folks, like Craig Fehrman in the Los Angeles Times, disagree with Barton’s take on Jefferson. Others, like Martin E. Marty, Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in religious history at the University of Chicago, really disagree with Barton’s take on Jefferson:
If you wanted to promote the idea of “a Christian America,” one which would privilege one religion, a version of Christianity, and de-privilege all others, and if you want to get back to roots and origins, the last of the “founding fathers” on whom you’d concentrate would be Jefferson. Yet the most ardent public and pop advocate of privilege and virtual establishment, David Barton, cites Jefferson for Bartonian positions which are directly opposite of Jefferson’s. Never heard of David Barton? Most of the historians you would ever meet never heard of him, and if you told them about him and his positions, they would yawn or rage about listing him among those who deal honestly with Jefferson.
[I do] not over-do ad hominem and sneering references, so we leave to others all the disdaining that Barton so richly merits.
Or, if you’d rather just watch an angry person rip into Barton, here you go:
And when you’re finished with that, I’d recommend peeking back at that alumni mag story, because it has interesting sidebars on how Jefferson created the book and how the Smithsonian conserved it. Or watch this video on the conservation process.
IMAGE: Jefferson’s Bible